11/03/2013 06:58 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Verdi's Egypt

On December 25, 1998, I walked to a hot beach in flip-flops, eagerly awaiting the deep blue world of brain coral and clown fish. Instead, I was greeted by exuberant Italians surrounding a dazzling Christmas tree in the white sand, dramatically set against the crimson mountains of Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. Remarkably, this is not my most striking memory about that Christmas holiday in my native Egypt: that night, while watching TV, I saw a commercial by the Ministry of Tourism extolling the virtues of Egypt's natural beauty and ancient treasures. What struck me most was the music playing behind the images of the Red Sea, Abu Simbel, the Karnak Temples, and the famous pyramids (I failed to find the exact commercial, but here's one along the same lines). The music was proud, defiant, and resolute--it was Giuseppe Verdi's Triumphal March from Aida.

Verdi's Aida has left a deep, indelible impression on modern Egyptian culture. Khedive Ismail, the progressive ruler of Egypt and Sudan from 1863 to 1879, commissioned the opera with the opening of Cairo's new Khedival Opera House in mind, but the Franco-Prussian War delayed the premiere because Aida's sets and costumes were trapped during the Siege of Paris in 1870. At the time, Egypt was a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire, and Khedive Ismail was working to establish Egypt's independence. His dabbling in European art was a way of demonstrating cultural autonomy. Ismail was so pro-Western that he claimed in an 1879 statement, "My country is no longer in Africa; we are now part of Europe. It is therefore natural for us to abandon our former ways and to adopt a new system adapted to our social conditions."

Egypt's khedive had great European ambitions for his country. Contrarily, Verdi had no connection with the African country and did not seem to have much admiration for modern Egyptian culture. In a letter to the Paris Opera impresario Camille du Locle, who had just returned from a trip to Egypt in February 1868, Verdi writes: "When we see each other, you must describe all the events of your voyage, the wonders you have seen, and the beauty and ugliness of a country which once had a greatness and a civilization I had never been able to admire."

At this point, three puzzling questions arise:

  1. Why did Verdi accept a commission from Khedive Ismail?
  2. How could an Italian who claims to have little appreciation of Egypt, and who never even visited the country, write this opera?
  3. Why did Ismail choose Verdi?

The answer to the first question is that the pay was good. Verdi received the equivalent of $521,000 in today's purchasing power for Aida. Additionally, he was flattered. According to Edward Said, the cultural critic and founding figure of postcolonial studies, the leading Italian composer was chosen ahead of his main rivals: Wagner and Gounod. Though both composers wrote grand operatic dramas during a period of surging nationalism, neither wrote music that resonated with the specific political circumstances of their countries. Verdi's career accompanied and arguably contributed to the Risorgimento (the Italian unification process that lasted from 1815 to 1870). Aida was the last overtly political work in a lifetime of operas that commented on everything from hegemonic state power to ecclesiastical corruption. Finally, Verdi was genuinely taken by the story. In the 1860s, he was grasping for potential opera sources. His career had lulled, and the Paris premiere of Don Carlos--which, like Aida, is an ambitious grand opera--was a fresh disaster. When Du Locle received a sketch for possible operatic adaptation from the renowned French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette, he passed it on to Verdi, who declared it a "splendid mise-en-scène."

The second question (how could Verdi write Aida?) is a little trickier to answer. When Khedive Ismail approached Verdi, Verdi was presented with the opportunity to create a work of grandeur and gravity for a non-European country, a work whose every detail he could supervise from the comfort of Europe. In this endeavor, Verdi was supported by royalty, having been personally commissioned by the ruler of Egypt. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, Verdi had the academic and intellectual authority to adapt an ancient Egyptian story into opera through Auguste Mariette, who oversaw the costume and set designs. Ancient Egypt is certainly the most faraway and exotic setting Verdi ever used in his opera, and Verdi's relationship with Mariette was likely the first time a European opera composer relied upon an academic authority about a subject of which he had little knowledge. However, Mariette's intellectual lineage was imperial: the archeological volumes of Napoleon's Description del'Egypte and Champillion's deciphering of hieroglyphics in his Lettre à M. Dacier and Précis du système hiéroglyphique, works facilitated by military expedition, are pivotal predecessors to Mariette's work. Even though Mariette ransacked ancient Egyptian archeological sites and sent the goods back to the Louvre, as was the custom at the time, he was eventually appointed as Egypt's first Director of Antiquities. Moreover, Mariette was the principal designer of antiquities at the Egyptian pavilion at the Paris International Exhibition of 1867, which was, Said points out, "one of the greatest and earliest displays of imperial potency."

Thus, through Aida, we have a vision of Egypt thoroughly Europeanized and formed through the optic of colonization--a perspective, Said would argue, that is typically "orientalist." Said defines orientalism as "the subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arabo-Islamic peoples and their culture," a culture depicted through European art as underdeveloped, stagnant, and inferior to Western society (think The Snake Charmer, by French painter Jean-Léon Gérôme). This is evident in Aida when one compares Verdi's academic sources with the fully realized opera. For example, Verdi had scholarly material on ancient Egypt provided to him by his publisher, Giulio Ricordi. Most of the documentation concerned ancient Egyptian religious practices. Like the academic sources used by Mariette, this source was a product of its era: prescriptive, orientalized, and formed by European imperialism. One important note, however, concerns priests. In all of this documentation, there are no women priests. Verdi created the role of the priestess, which according to scholars like Edward Said and Patrizia Palumbo, followed the historical European convention of making mysterious "oriental women central to any exotic practice." Think of the slave girls, dancers, and beautiful concubines who populate the operas of Mozart and Rossini that are set in Eastern locations. It was, simply put, a way of eroticizing the foreign.

One can see the plot of the opera as a dramatic allegory of colonization. In the opera, Radames leads the Egyptian army to defeat an Ethiopian force, but he is denounced as a traitor and sentenced to death. The rivalry of Egypt and Ethiopia, though set in the ancient past, evokes the nineteenth-century colonial rivalry between Britain and France in East Africa. And there is, certainly, a showing of imperial strength in Aida, reaching its zenith in the famous Act II, scene 2 Triumphal March, when a victorious Radames returns from his Ethiopian conquest. Modern Egyptians still associate this music with martial victory, hence the success of the Ministry of Tourism television spot that I saw in Sharm-el-Sheikh on my Christmas holiday. The Triumphal March is the largest scene Verdi ever wrote for the stage.

Some people, myself included, take issue with Edward Said's reading of Aida; if anything, the opera seems to condemn rather than celebrate imperialist aggression. Furthermore, from an Italian perspective, Egypt was often seen as a safe haven in the nineteenth century, a fact that lends a blow to Said's claim that the opera is intellectually steeped in French imperialism. During Italy's bloody Risorgimento, Italians sought refuge in Egypt. The French historian Robert Ilbert points out that in 1819, at least 500 Italian political exiles lived in Egypt in safety under the protection of Egyptian leader Muhammed Ali. Several Italians even participated in Egypt's war of independence with the Ottoman Empire in the 1840s.

This leads me to the third and final question: Why did Ismail choose Verdi? Khedive Ismail was a shrewd politician, and his commissioning of Verdi was not happenstance: it was calculated. Since Verdi's music was so closely tied to the Risorgimento, Egypt's ruler likely saw a kindred political spirit in the music of Verdi. And Verdi, whether he realized it or not, created a work that celebrates Egypt, a piece of music capable of rousing patriotic sentiment within the Egyptian people--and still used by the Egyptian government to do just that. Perhaps Verdi's music functions as a stimulus of national unity and progress, contributing to Egypt's ethos of independence. That culture of independence sustained the country through Ottoman domination in the nineteenth century until British rule ended in 1952. Finally, a free, self-governing Egypt was established.

Today, Egypt is troubled. As my country becomes more politically polarized, sectarian violence continues to rock its society. In Verdi's Aida, Egyptians are Egyptians--proud, hotheaded, maybe a little cartoonish, and certainly Italianized, but still Egyptian. Unfortunately, in Egypt these days the distinction is whether one is Muslim or Christian, Sunni or Shia, Salafi or Liberal. There is little national unity, little sense of Egyptian camaraderie, and no pride in a truly ancient and rich civilization.

For the next week, while I delve further into Aida at Houston Grand Opera, I'll just pretend that Verdi's Egypt is my Egypt.

Originally published in the fall 2013 issue of Opera Cues, the official program book and magazine of Houston Grand Opera. Reprinted with permission.